Yesterday, in Would the Last Foreign Company in China Please Turn Off the Lights: A Sort of Part 2, I wrote about a Wall Street Journal article on foreigners are leaving China. In that post, I discussed the recent arrest of Meng Wanzhou and Chinese government threats by the Chinese government against the United States and Canada for that arrest. A lot has been written about how China may retaliate against US and Canadian businesspeople should Ms. Wanzhou not be released and soon.

I noted China’s foreign ministry’s response to Meng Wanzhou’s arrest, assuring foreigners that if they abide by China’s laws they will be fine:

China’s foreign ministry has said: “China always protects the legitimate rights and interests of foreigners in China. But they should also abide by all Chinese laws and regulations.” See this Financial Times article, Chinese and US executives worry after Huawei CFO’s arrest. Right now anyway, I pretty much take them at their word, but this is a double-edged sword. This means that if you are abiding by Chinese law you should be fine, but it also very likely means that if you are not, you are likely at great risk.

I then listed the following seven things which foreign companies should do to avoid finding themselves at cross-purposes with the Chinese government:

  1. If you are doing business in China without a Chinese company (and by China, I most emphatically do not mean a Hong Kong or a Taiwan company), you had better be damn sure you do not need a company, especially since the odds are that you do. Doing Business in China Without a WFOE: Will the Defendant Please Rise.
  2. It means paying whatever taxes you or your company might owe. See China Taxes, Getting Legal, and Some Good News.
  3. It means having your visa and the visas of all of your employees in good order. See China Visa FAQs.
  4. It means not deciding you are operating legally in China based on some crap you’ve read on the Internet that feeds into your desire to believe that you are. See China Law Online: It’s All Wrong.
  5. It means protecting your company from your China employees because the odds are good it will be one of your China employees who leads to your downfall either by reporting you to the authorities or by suing you and thereby exposing something you are doing that you should not be doing. Trust us on this one. Please. See China Employer Audits: The FAQs.
  6. It means that if you are not 99.99% certain you are operating in China completely legally you either immediately do something to change that or you immediately leave the country and you take all of your foreign employees with you. And if for some reason you don’t care about one or more of your foreign employees getting into big trouble in China, note that people who go to jail for something that their company do have a tendency to sue their company.
  7. If you are in a dispute with anyone in China regarding money, you should consider paying it and getting a valid and legally sound  release in Chinese making clear that you paid it. See Maybe Owe Money To China? Don’t Go There. Or you should consider immediately leaving China.

I then promised we would today “discuss some specific factors our China lawyers look at to determine the level of risk people and companies face in China.” More specifically, I am going to address what to do to avoid being detained in China, like this person here who is seeking funding to get out.

Let me start by noting that one of the things our international lawyers have long done is provide companies and individuals an assessment on their risks on going to China or staying in China. We have taken to calling this our “China detention risk assessment package.” What we do as part of that assessment package is gather up as many facts as we can about why the person is going to China, what the person has done that might increase or decrease their risk of being held in China, and where exactly that person will be going in China and with whom they will be meeting and why. We tell them right up front that we will never tell them there is no risk in going or staying in China because there is some risk in whatever we do, including just crossing the street. And yet, even the risk of crossing the street can vary based on a number of factors, including (as you can see by the video on crossing the street in Vietnam), the country. We have done these sort of risk assessments for a whole host of countries, but in the last fifteen years, I estimate about 90% of them have been for China or for Russia.

In doing these risk assessments we look at the following, among other things (For various reasons, I do not want to reveal everything):

1. What has our client done? Who might it have angered?
2. Who exactly is our client? What exactly does our client do? Is what it does overall good or bad for China to which he or she will be going? To what countries is he or she tied?
3. Where in Greater China will our client be going? Some cities in the PRC are riskier than others. We’ve dealt with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan? We’ve looked at the odds of someone getting seized in Cambodia for problems in China.
4. What about having the meeting somewhere near China? Is that possible, and if it is, where will the risk be lowest of China exerting its authority? How can we minimize the risk of our client inadvertently finding him or herself in China? We once had a client concerned about China, but badly needed to go to Vietnam. We researched airlines and routes to try to determine the one least likely to divert to China in an emergency.
5. What can our client do to reduce its chances of being detained in China before going there? Oftentimes there is quite a lot that can be done.

Whenever we write about China detentions or China hostage situations, we get a slew of emails from people saying that we are exaggerating this risk. In this post we have been as careful as we can be not to quantify anything so as to avoid such a claim. But if you think this is rare we urge you to Google “China hostage” and “detained in China” and read for about an hour. That way it will be you to estimate the frequency and not us.

What though do you do if you are already in China and you have a problem? Generally, you get out as quickly and quietly as you can and you enlist qualified help in doing so.

The bottom line is be careful out there, even when just crossing the street.


Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.